EP 273 – Jason Whitfield – SynBio 10x – You and I Could Order a Gene Right Now

by | May 10, 2023

Synthetic Biology is fun. Yes, I said it. Speaking to ⁠Dr. Jason Whitfield⁠, Program Manager of ⁠SynBio 10x⁠ at ⁠UNSW Founders⁠, about Synthetic Biology was even more fun.

Some of the topics Jason discussed:

Some other titles we considered for this episode, but ultimately rejected:

  1. Tired Is…Just a Given
  2. I Don’t Do Well With Boredom
  3. I’m a Recovering Academic
  4. It’s Drinking From the Firehose
  5. That’s Great.  That’s Speed.
  6. This Isn’t a Garage Band Project
Read the best-effort transcript

Read the best-effort transcript below (This technology is still not as good as they say it is…):

Michael Waitze 0:07
Hi, this is Michael Waitze. And welcome back to the Asia Tech Podcast. Today, we’re joined by Jason Whitfield, the Program Manager of SynBio 10x. Jason, thank you so much for coming on the show today. How are you doing?

Dr. Jason Whitfield 0:22
Oh, hey, man. Yeah, thanks so much for having me on. I’m, I’m doing well, I’m tired. But, you know, as I think we set up in this game, I think tired is just a given. And it’s always good.

Michael Waitze 0:36
You know, I say this every now and then. But the Japanese have this great phrase, Hema, yo te sodashi hoga Yi, if you speak Japanese, what it means is, if you don’t speak Japanese, excuse me, it means better than having free time, which is what human means. So gushy means busy. It’s better to be busy. And I think it’s a real indication of that the work ethic that they have there, but also this idea of like, it’s better to be have interesting stuff going on, than to be bored. And I think that’s what you’re saying. Yeah.

Dr. Jason Whitfield 1:02
Yeah, totally. And it’s, yeah, I don’t do well with boredom, like, the whole Devil’s hands idle play thing. Like, I don’t have to deal with playthings or like that thing. It truly resonates with me, I think, like, with the work that we do, kind of founders, and we talk about my bear in a second, it’s kind of if I get it, I would work every hour of every day, but I wouldn’t feel like it’s work.

Michael Waitze 1:28
You know, people say to me, like, Hey, did you take vacation at this point? What did you do over it? I’m like, why would I do that? When I have the opportunity to talk to the most interesting people, the people building stuff that’s never been built before. Like, to me, this is the greatest thing in the whole world. I get to talk to you. I get to talk to people like you that are building incredible stuff. And I get to learn everyday. Why would I do anything else? Yeah.

Dr. Jason Whitfield 1:50
Yeah, totally agree.

Michael Waitze 1:52
I don’t need a vacation. And I live in a country that’s like a constant vacation like it rained today. But the weather here is generally 33 degrees, Sunny and gorgeous. What am I doing wrong?

Dr. Jason Whitfield 2:02
Yeah, I totally get it. You kind of I’m in Sydney, Australia. Yeah. And where I live, I’m in the perfect spot. I’m about a 10 minute walk down to the beach, you know, 10 minute walk into kind of, you know what we call it’s like Centennial Park in Sydney. So I have Parkland nearby. It’s, yeah, it’s beautiful.

Michael Waitze 2:22
So let’s do this. Let’s jump in, give me a little bit of your background. And then I want to talk to actually what you’re doing and what you’re building and how you’re helping people build stuff. So

Dr. Jason Whitfield 2:29
go for Yeah, cool. So my background is I joke that I’m a recovering academic, I, you know, I, I finished high school. When I was like, right now I’m going to go study and actually started doing psychology. And then I thought I was going to have this whole other path in maybe being like, a criminal psychologist. But then I started doing biology, I took biology because I was interested in it. And then you started seeing, like, atomic structures of kind of receptors and enzymes and proteins, and I was just completely hooked from there. And, you know, went through, did my undergraduate degree. And then in Australia, we have what’s called an honors degree, which is like a master’s compressed into a year. Wow. So you know, really, I think it’s film wall would say it’s drinking from the firehose day on. And then like, I’m really interested in research, this idea of well, you have seen before is cutting edge, like pushing beyond those boundaries and seeing what’s possible. And I went into PhD, kind of in this area of what we call protein engineering. And my kind of field was I made, I say, I made things glow. So a PhD focused on I made optical biosensors, which are biological molecules that emit light. And then when they interact with another molecule, based on my designs, they’ll change how they emit that light. And my PhD was really focused on using that kind of technology to track neurotransmitters in the brain. And so I was really going down this path of really pure academic research. And through there, I was really interested in tool development. And I did a postdoctoral research fellowship here in Australia, kind of in this field called synthetic biology. It was rebranded to at the time and I was more like taking a step back. And some synthetic biology has this idea of componentry. It’s kind of layering in engineering language and ideology into biology and I was making kind of platform so Biosciences and so I got exposed to like diagnostics, and I started looking at like applications and then I got really disillusioned slash maybe wasn’t good enough to be an academic. Or I once got told, I once got to hold us to collaborative for academia, which was that one hand you might see, I took it as a huge compliment because I think it’s just unloved everyone’s projects like biosensing, what you’re really doing is if you give it an honest appraisal, it’s tool development. I’m in the space where someone comes to me and As a problem, and they’re like, I needed to detect a molecule, and I’m like, I can build you a bio sensor for that. And what it meant was, I was like in proteins and like local structural biology building senses, but I was working with neuroscientists, cell biologists, people interested in diagnostics, and even plant biologists. So I started to really cultivate this kind of mile wide inch deep knowledge. And it made me kind of appreciate, like, how you’re facilitating other people’s work and their roads to understanding. And then I kind of got this parallel commercialization bug, and was kind of going in and out of things, you know, are flooded with the idea of founding. And, you know, getting increasingly disillusioned with academia, as I said, and then through COVID, I really had the opportunity to reflect on what I was doing, then this opportunity to run a synthetic biology startup accelerator popped off. And this is,

Michael Waitze 5:54
this is working for you. Because this is like you get to be interested in everybody’s project, you get to do all this sort of biological engineering, the optical by all the stuff that you love doing. And the thing that you I will say, Take took flak for for like being too collaborative or being too interested in other people’s projects. This was like made for you know,

Dr. Jason Whitfield 6:14
yeah, it was hilarious. I kind of, you know, when you read job descriptions, I don’t know, when was the last time you apply for a job? Like, maybe not recently, but like, they put their JD down, and they’re like, we’re looking for someone who’s ambitious, we’re looking for this. But then they put the skills and I was like, Yeah, I have a pretty good network. Maybe I’d liked maybe, optimistically, I’d like to think I’m a fairly likable guy. And I can talk connect with people and all that. And as you said, like, I really love working on a lot of ideas with a few people. And I kind of, there are a few other things where, you know, you’re like, oh, maybe I’ll just take a punt on it. And, yeah, I ended up getting the job. And so it’s at the University of New South Wales here in Sydney. And it’s run by the organization founders, which is kind of the unit of entrepreneurship. And I will say at the front, like, you kind of universities were not renowned for us, speed and agility. But I knew that I was going into the right space from the application process, like, I was gonna say, like, applications closed on the Sunday. But a Wednesday, I had a call, they want to have a few pre meetings. The following Tuesday, I had an interview, 20 minutes after the interview, I got the author. Wow. And I was like, that’s great. That’s speed. This is a good sign.

Michael Waitze 7:32
There’s so much stuff, Jason that I want to unpack here. But let’s just go to the most recent thing, you said that universities are not known for their speed. And yet, if you look at where, and I’m just gonna use the United States as a proxy for this, right, but I think it’s true everywhere. If you look at the places where pockets of innovation have grown up, whether it’s the original, and you’re probably too young to remember this, but route 128 and outside of Boston was called the information highway because that’s where that’s where Lotus was founded in a bunch of these companies, right? But the reason why it was possible was because of MIT, Harvard, Tufts, Babson, all these universities were there, you got to Silicon Valley, and there’s Berkeley, Stanford, you know, UCLA, USC, all these big universities in California. And frankly, every place where innovation happens is because not only because, but because universities are there. And that’s where people are thinking, how can I take the application of the research that I have, and turn it into something? I mean, the MIT Media Lab is just the most famous one of these things. We’re not the only one. So the idea that you’re doing this at a university should not be shocking to anybody. No,

Dr. Jason Whitfield 8:35
no, I think, yeah, totally. Right. And I think, you know, while you all you listed off, I think, is the aspirations of what we’re trying to achieve. And I think it’s how do I say this in a diplomatic sense, it’s this kind of thing, where universities, the way they approach entrepreneurship, and like, or what they’re kind of objective was, is to train people to become researchers. And I think this is a stat where it’s like point 4% of PhD grads or something, become a professor. So and yet everything outside of academia is actually called an alternative Korea. And so there’s this mindset, and it’s, sometimes it’s universities, but then you start layering in the approaches that they took to buy intellectual property, and maybe even like, risk assessment and kind of risk appetite, and startups what we’re trying to facilitate. They’re not for the faint hearted. They’re like, you know, we’re talking about like, we love what we do. It’s enriching, it’s invigorating, but it is risky. And as an institution weighing up that risk, it’s there. There is the kind of tendency, I think this is a global problem that they want to just license because you can get a check. It looks good on the books, and you can move on to the next whereas a startup has a lot of effort required, there’s a lot of risk.

Michael Waitze 9:50
So what exactly is SynBio trying to accomplish? Can we go for that because there’s so much else to there’s so many other things to follow up on. As

Dr. Jason Whitfield 9:59
a symbol or the program or the field,

Michael Waitze 10:02
the program, the program the program. We’ve in the field too, because I think it’s important fodder there. I don’t think you can separate those two things from each other. Yeah.

Dr. Jason Whitfield 10:09
No, not at all. You’re I think so I run the program seen by 10x, which is one of our accelerator programs at founders. And, you know, conventionally, accelerators, I guess, a seen as places like, I don’t wanna say startups go, like I will acknowledge at the front put my hand up. So really green to this commercialization of ownership space. Although I think in some ways, that’s a benefit for me, because I don’t really know how a lot of things were done before. But really, it’s seen as accelerators can sometimes be seen as prescriptive startup schools where it’s come in what is product what is customers market, but like we talked with, like film all of it and sequencer fortunately for me, the program means even the ventures here in Australia, they partnered with it and with that, they brought a little bit of capital, but also their kind of ethos and their mentality of lean in investment. And so we had football and Gabrielle, Monza, Gabrielle Munster, that mostly as partners, she was kind of instrumental in helping us develop kind of this idea of being active in how we would kind of look at the teams that we work with, so that we will pick six startups to come in. And they will be across a range of things that we judged as synthetic biology, which is people engineering, or using biology to create products, right. And there’s all the things that you can normally teach them, like how to pitch, you know, what is customer product market fit all this, but, you know, you’re dealing with six teams, some of them are really advanced, we may have repeat founders, and then some of them could be researchers first time spinning out. Yeah. So we had to meet a lot of them at their level. And so there was an element of trying to be like, it makes sense actively reactive, of kind of looking at them working with them, and figuring out what are their needs and interrogating them. And then trying to respond to that really quickly, week over week, like, we had someone come through, and they were like, on trying to get my techno economic model down, like, you know, in synthetic biology, this field that kind of promises, the future of food, where it’s third is going to be rude, not growing, you know, economics is the biggest, one of the biggest hurdles, we have to get over, you’re kind of fighting, trying to create commodity products using other commodities as feedstock, and you need to be that much greater value, right? It’s the kind of cool concept, the rough concept. And so like, that’s a cool part of these early stage companies is trying to show that to prospective investors. But look, we’re going to make a product that’s going to be valuable. And it’s not going to cost much

Michael Waitze 12:36
can you use your background as a scientist and your experience as a scientist and as a researcher to what’s the right word to observe what’s happening with the six companies in the same way that you would observe? You know, you’d create these optical biosensors, you said to find these signals? So can you create the same type of and I’m putting it in quotes, right optical biosensors to then watch the startups that you’re helping in the same way and look for the same types of signals, but kinds of signals that will then help them grow in the same way that things can grow in a petri dish kind of thing?

Dr. Jason Whitfield 13:07
Yeah, I would hope so. I would like to think so. Yeah, I think it’s an it’s a funny way you put it, but it is kind of like, and this is something I’d be learning throughout the whole person. Yeah, last couple years, and especially recommended GADS is observing like it is just looking to see what they’re doing and trying to assess like, what are their needs, like? And you’ll know you’re working with them, and they’re presenting an r&d plan to you and you go, Oh, is this r&d plan really tied in to the product you want to make at the end? Do these milestones correspond to kind of value inflection points you’re going to need in eight months, when you say you’re going to do a seed round? You know, like, it’s kind of working with that, and then going into the weeds a little bit on that and saying, like, Okay, what is missing from this equation? Does the economics Do you have the economics in place? Do you have kind of customers have you actually presented a path to scalability where you can, if they’re making products, like, for example, one of the companies that we kind of had come through the accelerator was diagnostics, RNA diagnostics, for disease detection. And so a really critical point is then being able to just show us convince us that clinicians want to use their device, you know, like, and so it’s things like that. And so it’s almost like responding and saying, r&d goes on, hold here. We need you to actually go to a company.

Michael Waitze 14:24
But you actually said this, and I don’t want to go back to it again all the time. But you said like, I’m still learning. But isn’t that what science is? Anyway? Like a scientist who knows everything isn’t a scientist anymore? They’re just somebody who they’re just pontificating. Do you know what I mean? And you’re saying, like, I’m still learning, but that’s what you’re doing anyway. It’s kind of a cool loop. No,

Dr. Jason Whitfield 14:44
yeah. I love I love that you say pontificating because I feel like that word really. It sounds like what it means it embodies it and you’re right, I think, and it’s funny like one of the challenges I face found early on, because a lot of these you know sin via Synthetic Biology, Biological Engineering, whatever you want to call it, yep, this isn’t a garage, band project kind of company, right? Like, we don’t get people just pop it off the street. So what we’re dealing with is like researchers who are PhD trained, they’ve spent similar lengths, like nine years, the same as we’ve been trained, indoctrinated, if you will, in a way of thinking, and it’s really hard for them to try and convince them to see the value in company building. But also to see the science of it, as you say, the learning process and to see that early stage company building is just experimentation and data gathering and analysis.

Michael Waitze 15:36
This is the really important parts, all right, and you’re making me think in real time about how to explain this to people that are coming through your program to do this, if they can apply all of the methodology, right, which is okay, I think that this thing in biology is going to help me create this, but I don’t know how, and then build a plan, a scientific plan around, here are the inputs that I think I need, here are the outputs that I think I’m going to get basically just using the scientific method, right? Here’s my hypothesis. Here’s my experiment to build it. Here’s my outcome, which was wrong, but okay, I learned and then go back and just keep doing it. And isn’t that what company iteration is? Isn’t that what pivoting is? Anyway, these guys and gals should be graded this know

Dr. Jason Whitfield 16:14
that, you know, exactly, and that’s what we try and summon up like Simba. Again, the whole a lot of the thesis is they talk about the design, build, test, learn cycle. And I’m like, that is company building one on one like it is designing something, building it, testing it, and then learning from it and just iterating. And like, we were really lucky in the program, with my sequence coming in, you can pull down from their portfolio, these companies that have maybe 123 years, where say, 123, I mean, like seed series, a series B companies, and they all say the same thing. Like, yeah, we’re still doing, we’re still iterating we’re still learning, you know, yes, we are approaching commercial scale, but we’re still learning about what our product might be or how it will check.

Michael Waitze 16:58
I mean, I’ve said for years that I think early stage companies are fundamentally experiments, they just are because you don’t know what you’re gonna get, and you don’t know what the outcome is going to be. I want to ask you this, because you mentioned COVID, I didn’t really want to talk a lot about the pandemic. But if you go back and look at the dates when you started doing this, it was almost started during the pandemic. And I’m curious how, what that was like, but also more curious about now that you’ve come out of this, because it is a collaborative effort. What’s changed now that you can travel, your companies can travel and you can go to places that we talked about earlier, whether it’s in the US or in Europe, or anywhere else in Asia, to then collaborate with people doing the same type of science and company building to be able to do this, right. So what did you learn during the pandemic? And then come out of it? How do you use all that stuff to then make it more effective?

Dr. Jason Whitfield 17:48
It’s interesting. So like, I actually didn’t stop the role during COVID. But like, I did start the commercialization January COVID. I think it’s an interesting point, because I think it feels like it taught people like this speed, and the access, like this idea of being, you know, what we’re doing now, like talking online, it’s that ability to rapidly connect with someone have meaningful discourse, and then just continue to iterate on that. It’s not being like, I can’t get across town that day. I can’t get to your city this week. It’s, and it kind of allows you to almost do like a lot of honestly, preamble but like pre work. So like, by the time when you can now we can travel to these locations and have these in person meetings, because I feel like there’s always something special about in person, yeah, unlock something with the NGO room. It allows you to make the most of that. It’s like it almost cuts out the preamble of those meetings of getting to know one another getting to like, have that kind of like awkward, like, how do they work? What are they saying this person swears a lot. What do they mean by that? And it cuts all of that out and suddenly so you can kind of get in and just get it done and be incredibly productive.

Michael Waitze 18:59
You also mentioned this word about institutionalizing innovation, right? Why is it so important to do this? In other words, to institutionalize innovation, you said it before, right? This is not like three guys or three gals in a garage, which you can do if you’re building like a new photo app, which, you know, people have stopped kind of doing that. But what you’re building is way more complicated complex, and the output is also way more complex than that. But why is it beneficial to institutionalize that?

Dr. Jason Whitfield 19:25
Yeah, that’s such a good point. And the question, so the programs in budget X was born out of that was the brainchild of my boss, David Burns, Director of entrepreneurship here. And he kind of looking at some buyer and he likened it to kind of the software revolution back in like, I guess, when it was in the 70s 80s when it began rapidly democratized, right? It was the idea of like, suddenly everyone had it and right now this is a point when this is institutional knowledge is incredibly high barrier to entry to kind of understand some of this stuff, but We are rapidly doing that. But it’s also like at a time when this work is incredibly capital intensive, you know, even some of the most basic pieces of lab equipment are a couple of 100 grand. And that’s like one of your core pieces of credit, right? Not to mention regulatory barriers. And so at these early stages, that’s where I think this kind of institutionalization of this innovation is sort of critical, because one, it, it allows us like it, what we provide in the program is actually like six months free lab space, right? So we’re telling people come in, we’re going to give you free lab space, but then all that comes with it, like at a university, which is sterilization, regulatory approved environment, like access to chemical ordering, all these things that companies don’t think people didn’t think about when they’re dreaming and Id ideating. And then reality comes crashing. And we’re like, you know, you need to like contact DHL for an input permit.

Michael Waitze 20:53
This is like AWS for this is like AWS for startups, in the sense that in the old days, you’d have to build all these servers, understand artificial intelligence, all these things, you’d have to do yourself. And now you just call AWS and go, I need a machine, or I need 10 of them. It’s the same thing if every individual company has to get regulatory approval, or has to make sure that they’re working in a clean environment, or that they have the right lab equipment. That’s a nightmare. And can I just say this to Sorry, can I just say this to this idea of democratization of software? Look, I remember because I’m older than you. But I remember when Lotus 123 came out, I really do and I remember how much it changed stuff. But Mitch Kapoor, right, who was the founder of Lotus seemed like this deity figure who was so far away from stuff that other people could do. And now, and now we’ve seen that cycle change where it’s like anybody could do a tech startup, anybody. And I think what you’re trying to do here is not anybody because you have to have some kind of knowledge or a lot of knowledge, right. But trying to make this synthetic biology democratized, so that people that do have the knowledge can then commercialize that in a way that makes sense. So fair.

Dr. Jason Whitfield 21:56
Yeah, I think that’s really fair. And I think it’s like, it’s about democratizing it to the people as well, like the right kinds of people. Because, yeah, you know, it’s, it’s about its purpose led, mission driven kind of look, in startups, and especially in this field, and part of what we try to do is also that kind of connection, again, institutional like facilities where it’s like, you know, they have rooms of analytical equipment, and then experts around them. So your eye, we need to know what kind of result we want. We don’t need to know the nuts and bolts of every piece of equipment. And that’s kind of how it should be at early stage, because that means your development cycles are so rapid, and then suddenly your network is growing. And you’re getting this expert feedback, right? From these people that like now wouldn’t run it like that. So this is

Michael Waitze 22:38
the other thing, too is all of this is happening in a university environment. Right. And again, the same thing at Stanford the same thing at Berkeley, the same thing at MIT. Right. But the customers were the business partners are, I think, generally going to be corporates, existing companies, or at least a way to test it. And I guess the real question for me is, what role should those corporates play, if any? And how can they help out? And then how does the university connectivity to those corporates help the startups that are in there? Does that make sense?

Dr. Jason Whitfield 23:11
Yeah, that makes total sense. And like, this is what I’m really loving about where we are is like, you become like a bit of a Nexus like the center of these spaces, Emelia. We have kind of through application process, we have kind of PE firms that help us do diligence on these teams, you know, and we kind of create this network where we’re able to then be like, Oh, these are trusted legal people. So when you’re doing early stage company development, you know, the governance things make a generative fringing IP, we know who’s trusted to go to, but then we’re improving their literacy as well in biotech. So when they get genes and molecules put in front of them, they’re a little bit more comfortable, maybe. But their role, I think, is, it’s that network or that mentorship, because there is, you know, the dream scenario for some of these startups is that they become not big corporates in the truest sense, but they become these big global companies, right? And who better to tell you in mentorship early days, even some people who resigned What exactly do you

Michael Waitze 24:10
do you think that there’s a way to create a sin bio brand, right? So you come out of this founder synth biotechs program, and in the same way that computer companies would sell Intel inside, and we’ll just give people the confidence that okay, I don’t need to know what the chip is or why. But I know that these are the best things or I can have confidence in them. Is there a way that you build that brand as well? And how important is that to you that says, I’ve come through the sin bio program, and I’ve reached these certain status points or milestones. So I must be good at this kind of thing. Do you think about that too?

Dr. Jason Whitfield 24:46
Yeah, definitely. I do. Because, you know, in the on the other side of it, there already is that brand is like, obviously very US centric, but it’s when anyone has come within the orbit of a guy called Jay Keasling, who’s amorous kind of Under or a guy called George Church, there really is researchers, they it’s funny that in academia, they didn’t think in this way. But researchers build brands, and they built this aura and this idea of like, Oh, you’ve gone through their lab, you must be good. I want to hire you, you know, I want to collaborate with you. And I think I did think about that. Because I do think about the responsibility that comes with that. Because what you’re, you know, we’re building these companies. And these are, you know, this is new industry to Australia, this kind of circled bio economy. So there is an obligation or responsibility to do our right to set it up for success the best way, and kind of you understand that when you are giving investment to these companies, you’re building them, they’re gonna go on to other investors. And you want that company’s journey through investment, kind of like Y Combinator, right? Like, they joke that the first raise you do after yc is the easiest one. Sure, I would love it. If it was equivalent for survive TEDx that people. Their first raise after Simba 10x was the easiest, because everyone goes, Oh, yeah, they’re great companies. We know they know their stuff. Let’s give them a check.

Michael Waitze 26:05
Yeah, but I mean, think about you brought up a really good point. Like, Y Combinator, if you think about even just the name of it, it doesn’t say startup, cool dudes, you know what I mean? Like, there’s nothing in it. And if you think about when it was first founded, which I don’t know, the date off top, my head, if you know now you’ve seen people’s LinkedIn profiles, it says like YC at nyc 21. And I’m just thinking, okay, like that is kind of bothersome for me for a bunch of different philosophical reasons. But the first year that you came out of YC, did anybody even know what that meant? They were just like, I don’t care. What are you combining? What is Why are you asking me why kind of thing? So it’s possible to do this? Yeah.

Dr. Jason Whitfield 26:41
Yeah, totally. So funny. And I, yeah, I probably share some reservations about that idea of like, though, you know, I see a teen and stuff. But yeah, it’s an interesting point. And, again, it’s like, I think it’s about what do you do with that brand? Like, what does that brands speak to? About? Like, what are you I guess? How do I say this coherently? It’s like, I would rather the startups spoke for sin biotechs, if that makes sense, like the success of the startups rather than people saying like, Oh, yeah,

Michael Waitze 27:13
yeah, rather than vice versa. It’s really interesting. And the only reason why I said, Why is the 18 was because it’s five years ago, and if that’s the best thing you can say about yourself, you know what I mean? It’s like, I was valedictorian of my high school class, which I was not, but if I was like, I’m 50, something years old, doesn’t really matter anymore kind of thing. It doesn’t, right, exactly.

Dr. Jason Whitfield 27:30
I would rather it was that kind of then it was that digging companies was so provocative that in five years time, yeah, I have a company that saying, Hey, we just did like a couple of 100 million series seed. And then people are going, Wow, Series C, and then they go back through the family tree of that company. Oh, they started this in biotechs. That’s crazy.

Michael Waitze 27:51
Yeah. Like, do you as a, as a scientist, and as a researcher? And again, correct me if I’m wrong with the terminology here? Do you think as you get deeply involved in the research, right, and I just I’m just refresh my memory here, you said somebody came to you with an issue, you said, I can build an optical biosensor, which means that you can build like some combination of molecules to be able to use it to find these other things and find signals. When you’re that deep into the biology. It must give you this real philosophical sense of like what the human condition is, I’m trying to find the right words for this. But like the deep the deeper, you get into, I used to say this, I used to go running in Tokyo with a buddy of mine when I was working in the stock market. And if we’d run by, you know, a billboard of Sony, we’d be like 6758, because that’s the stock code for Sony, if I remember correctly, so we couldn’t separate our day to day lives, from our work, but what you’re doing is so much more complex and complicated. And all the people that you’re working with are the same. How do you how do you separate like the complexity and philosophical implications of what you’re doing? Or can you in the kind of day to day minutiae of your regular life? You know what I mean?

Dr. Jason Whitfield 29:05
Yeah, that’s funny, I think. I think it’s become that they really, you can’t separate them. Because when I was like researching, you know, like, when I was PhD, I was in the lab all the time, right, which, you know, like, every good PhD student should be up against the I’m doing air quotes, I’m good. With you, I lived my best mates, or were doing their PhD, my housemates are all doing their PhDs in the same school, some of us in the same lab. So there’s not like that day to day, but then to the minutiae, it is interesting, because like, I do find myself, I’m the type of person I’ll be sitting there at the airport, you know, and they do the drug scan. You know, they pat you down, and I’m like, I wonder what’s in that. Way to look that

Michael Waitze 29:48
up. And that’s my point, though, right. Sorry. That’s my point. It’s sorry interrupt you but that’s the perfect example of this. It’s like if you’re out to dinner with your buddies, right or with your parents, and they’re talking about something you can own the only thing You can do is start thinking about the sort of biological solution to that problem. Like, wait a second, though they’re trying to find out this, but I probably could build something. And all you want to do is leave dinner and then go try to solve that problem. No. Yeah, totally.

Dr. Jason Whitfield 30:13
I just kind of I do the kind of mental like, Okay, well, we’re putting that in the back for later, when I can kind of sneakily do the Google note on the phone. And yeah, it’s, but I love that like, and I think it’s a definitely a typewriter person who does that. And yeah, I, I don’t find it to be negative. I just know one.

Michael Waitze 30:34
It’s super fun. But that’s the other thing too. Like, like I was saying, Before, we were running through Tokyo and looking at the billboards, we were not like, Oh, God, this is so boring. We were like, it was so exciting, because we were involved in it on a day to day basis. So we knew more about those companies in the stocks than everybody else did, just because we were doing it every day. But it’s the same thing. You know, if your brother Your sister is saying, hey, you know, I did this thing yesterday, and whatever, I ate this thing, like you ate that thing. I wonder if I could recreate that through synthetic biology? And they’re just like, dude, just have a conversation with me? No.

Dr. Jason Whitfield 31:03
Yeah, sometimes all they kind of you go the other side, where you become like, you know, is not really sustainable, like that leader that that milk to drinking 11,000 litres of water went into making that glass of milk, and they’re just like, Come on, man. Don’t worry, Edinburgh is working on it, it’s gonna, you know, they’re gonna make yeast make milk. And then it’s like, come on. And I’m like, this is interesting stuff, you know,

Michael Waitze 31:26
but it is reversing can’t get away from it. Can we just talk about this? And then I’ll let you go to? What are the philosophical implications of understanding science so well, where we can create these sensors, where you like you said, you can make lights, do things and all this, like stuff that I can’t even understand. But as we get deeper and deeper into understanding the science, can we also get deeper and deeper and understanding, like really complex things like how the brain works, how the how the rest of the body works, and the more we do that, the better we can make our lives is that fair?

Dr. Jason Whitfield 31:58
I think there is definitely an element of truth to that. It’s, you know, physicists, they kind of they call it that reductionist to the outcomes razor thing it’s like, but it’s also kind of the relatability is that you can call things down to really simple explanations. Or if you have a hierarchy, things that happen in the lower levels of hierarchies can kind of relate. It’s biology does work like that, to a degree. And it’s like, but that’s one of the complexities that diet, biology is this multi scales, spatial temporal thing is, like we talked about, like engineering, like a computer. But anyway, and the best analogy I was heard was, we’re not engineering a computer, you’re trying to influence the operator of a computer, because that thing has agency, it has space to move, and you’re trying to nudge it. So to your point about like, Could you understand where you get to that deep level? Yeah, totally, I think it’s about it comes down to its core. It’s about finding like relationships, like the relationships between molecules and their behavior. And then you’re trying to like, scale that up? And how does that look at DNA versus a cell versus a tissue? And so on and so forth? Yeah,

Michael Waitze 33:10
yeah. And I guess the flip side of that is, if you can understand this from a biological, biological and physical standpoint, what can you transfer from the true science that you’re learning in the development of these synthetic biology companies into the creation of I’ll just call generic startups. Because of this, the necessary science of building this stuff? And I don’t think there’s an answer to that. Right. But I do think it’s transferable? Yeah.

Dr. Jason Whitfield 33:37
Yeah, it’s an interesting thing. And it’s like, it’s a question of like, do we reach a point of like, understanding where we you do democratize or simplify the science to bring it to that point where it’s kind of it is that ready, transition transparence. Where it’s like, it is an it is we’re kind of approaching that point threshold already, where it is almost as easy to, you’re not gonna order a gene right now. We could log on to twist, type in a DNA sequence, order it off. But it’s that next layer of understanding what Gene Am I ordering? How does that work? And how exactly,

Michael Waitze 34:16
Okay, I’m gonna let you go. I’d love to get some of the companies that are going through the accelerator program onto the show. So I can learn more about this. Obviously, I’m not a scientist, but I’m super interested in synthetic biology, but also super interested in just all the new stuff that’s happening that to which I haven’t been introduced yet. We can talk about that later. Jason Whitfield, Program Manager at SynBio 10x, that was awesome. Thank you so much for doing this today.

Dr. Jason Whitfield 34:39
Thanks, Michael. I really, really enjoyed myself.


Latest Episodes:

EP 323 – Building Businesses and Breaking Barriers: A Global Entrepreneurial Odyssey – Meenah Tariq – CEO of Metric

EP 323 – Building Businesses and Breaking Barriers: A Global Entrepreneurial Odyssey – Meenah Tariq – CEO of Metric

In this episode of the Asia Tech Podcast, ⁠Meenah Tariq⁠, CEO of ⁠Metric⁠ and an experienced entrepreneur with deep roots in emerging markets, shared her journey and the lessons she’s learned along the way. Meenah discussed her early introduction to entrepreneurship in Pakistan, beginning with childhood ventures that sparked a lifelong passion for business.

read more
EP 322 – Stripe’s Strategy Shift: How Open Payment Systems Benefit Primer – Gabriel Le Roux – co-Founder and CEO of Primer

EP 322 – Stripe’s Strategy Shift: How Open Payment Systems Benefit Primer – Gabriel Le Roux – co-Founder and CEO of Primer

“What we are saying is, hey, right now you have this unified infrastructure that allows you to do payment experimentation. And guess what, if you want to try and test different services, now you have access to an app store of services, you go in, in the Primer dashboard, they can just like toggle on and off, like the services you want to use. You can add test them, AB testing in the world of payments is simply impossible, right?”—

The Asia Tech Podcast welcomed Gabriel Le Roux, a co-Founder and the CEO of ⁠Primer⁠ back to the show for a quick catch up. Gabriel had written a post on how Stripe’s new openness would change the payment space and I wanted to record about it.

read more
EP 321 – Understanding SME Pain Points: Strategizing Digital Transformation Across Asian Markets – Christopher Yu – President & CFO at KPay Group

EP 321 – Understanding SME Pain Points: Strategizing Digital Transformation Across Asian Markets – Christopher Yu – President & CFO at KPay Group

“I think Hong Kong is a very special city. I think the spirit of the people, it’s been a very entrepreneurial city over whatever, 100 plus years…Hong Kong, at the end day also has a good capital markets environment, for fundraising, especially for companies that have good traction and whatnot, I think it’s a great place to track capital.” – ⁠Christopher Yu⁠

The Asia Tech Podcast hosted Christopher Yu, the President and CFO at ⁠KPay Group⁠. Chris shared his journey from investment banking to the entrepreneurial sector, highlighting his transition from a generalist in the corporate realm to embracing more entrepreneurial challenges. It was a really cool conversation.

read more